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In this Oxbow:
A Theological Reflection
Is the Parish Priest a “Chaplain?”
.. or a “coach?”

Changing parishes...after Seventeen years!



May 13, 1998

The Bishop was on the phone, and his message was simple:  would I accept an appointment to St.George’s parish?

My head spun.

With one word, I would step away from seventeen years of rich relationships in St.Chad’s parish; throw a bunch of people into turmoil; and step from comfort and familiarity into uncertainty...

“Yes,” I said, “I will accept.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It is not as if this call had come out of the blue.  Just two days earlier I had been in an interview with the “Canonical Committee” of St.George’s, and whether the interview had gone well or badly (in fact it had been extremely positive), I knew the Bishop would be phoning some day soon... either to say that someone else was appointed, or that I was being offered the position.

So, while the actual moment was awesome, and even a little frightening, the fact that I was in such a situation at all (that is, getting a call from the Bishop) was not really a surprise.

Long ago... almost in another world...

The last time I had gone through this, it had been very different.  The call from the Bishop – back in 1981 – had come like a bolt out of the blue...
“Tony, this is Barry Valentine.  How would you like me to appoint you as Rector of St.Chad’s?”

Then I was speechless!

True, I had noticed some visitors in my congregation the previous week, but it hadn’t dawned on me that they might be checking me out to become their Rector....

But those were the ‘olden days.’  At that time, the practice was that the Bishop would suggest a suitable priest to a congregation, who then sent some people to quietly see what he or she was like, and, if they liked what they saw, the Bishop made the appointment!  There was a pro forma visit with parish leaders to sort out details, and I suppose people could have backed out if something had transpired to warn them off, but basically the appointment came in the initial phonecall from the Bishop!

So, on that day in 1981 – once I had found my tongue – I asked Bishop Valentine for a chance to pray about the decision, and he agreed that I should call him back.  I went over to the church, spent an hour there, and then accepted.  On September 1st, I began my work at St.Chad’s.

During the next seventeen years, the way clergy appointments are made changed profoundly.  Instead of the priest having very little idea a move was about to be suggested, almost the opposite became the case. No longer would anyone receive a call out of the blue like I had.  As it stands today, a person can not go to a different parish at all unless he or she has made the first move.

How can you turn your back on people you love???

Of course, immersed as I was in the life and relationships that formed in my first years at St.Chad’s, the fact that I could not leave unless I deliberately applied for it really didn’t concern me very much.

But I was forming some opinions... For instance, I had been observing certain colleagues who were many years in one parish and approaching retirement.  At one point one of them told me “Only five years to go!” and, as those years began to unfold, I sensed he was less and less motivated to serve his parish well... he was simply counting up the days and weeks that remained, almost like a convict serving out a sentence!  “How hard on a parish that must be!” I thought.  And, how hard it must have been on the individual, too... who simply had to be shrivelling up inside!

“Lord God,” I prayed, “Please never let me stay anywhere so long that I end up counting days and calculating the worth of my pensions!”

But how would God answer this prayer if no new appointment would ever come my way unless I applied for it?  Should I wait until shrivelling up begins before starting my search?  Or, should I plan to move along while things are good?

And things have stayed so good at St.Chad’s... year after year!  In fact they seem to have become continuously better and better.  Yes, the parish has its share of weak spots, but I think St.Chad’s today is as good as any parish could ever get – at least under my tutelage!

So, beginning to search for a new appointment felt a little like turning my back on a good thing; worse, it was like turning my back on some very dear people.  How do you say to someone you love, “I’m worried I might go stale by remaining here with you, so I’m leaving!”

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The parish priest: “chaplain” or “coach?”

I suppose I never would have begun to look around at all – I would have struggled to find ways to combat stagnation – if I had lived solely by the “chaplain” model of parish ministry.

It’s a time-honoured model, to be sure, dating back, in England, at least to the medieval period.  Perhaps you know the “poor parson” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales ?
Wyd was his parisshe, and houses fer asonder,
But he ne lefte nat, for reyn ne thonder,
In siknesse nor in meschief to visite
The ferreste in his parisshe, muche and lite,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf,
This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf,
That first he wroughte, and afterward he taughte.

                            Canterbury Tales, Prologue, 491-497

Here is a person who visits all the homes of his far-flung parish, fair weather or foul, to be present with those who are sick or in trouble, regardless of whether they are rich or poor.  They are his “sheep” whom he cares for on an individual basis, teaching, by example, the marks of a Christian life.

This model of the priest as “shepherd” was also enshrined by the 17th century Anglican, George Herbert, in his book, The Country Parson, a marvellous work depicting a solitary, prayerful, deeply learned man, who spends a Sunday afternoon

...either in reconciling neighbours that are at variance, or in visiting the sick, or in exhortations to some of his flock by themselves...
                            The Country Parson, Chapter VIII

I love these old portraits of the humble and godly pastor, and somewhere deep in my subconscious I have always wanted to be like them: kindly, prayerful, perceptive, understanding, caring for each person in my parish like a friend – indeed, like a member of their family.

I call it the “chaplain” model of pastoral ministry, because a “chaplain” is often assigned to people on a one-on-one basis.  He or she becomes like a personal mentor, sort of a religious social worker to individuals, sitting by their hospital beds, for instance, or holding their hands in grief, or guiding them in their difficult decisions.

I have been such a guide to many a person over the years, though not always as adequately as I might have wished. In St.Chad’s – precisely because I was there so long – I almost became a household figure in some families: preparing for marriage, baptizing children, counselling relationships, and assisting with funerals... all for the same people!

And, it would seem to me that if a parish priest’s job were simply to be chaplain to the members of a congregation, the longer he or she stayed in one parish the better.  It is in the long haul that you get to know the people well, it is in the long haul that you begin to understand them, and become their trusted friend.

And so, if our primary model of pastoral life is the “chaplain” model, I think no one should ever seek to change parishes.
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But...

There is another model of pastoral life: that of the “coach.”  And, despite the fact that the “chaplain” model is very old, and very much admired within the Anglican church, the “coach” model might be closer to the core of what Christianity is all about...

I think of Jesus, asking his first disciples to join him, and offering to train them in the art of “fishing for people.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.
And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
                            – Matthew 4:18-20, NRSV
I think of Jesus, who may have had as many as seventy-two trainees at one time, sending them out on practice runs just like a hockey coach sends players out onto the ice....
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.
                            – Luke 10:1, NRSV

I think of St.Paul, who was in every way a “coach” to the congregations which he had founded... telling those in Corinth how to conduct their worship services, how to guide those of their number who behave badly, and urging them to respect diversity; or telling the congregation in Galatia to stop imposing Jewish cultic practices on one another; or calling church members in Phillipi his “colleagues.”
I thank my God every time I remember you,
constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,
because of your sharing
* in the gospel from the first day until now.
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share* in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

                            – Philippians 1:3-7, NRSV

The New Testament is full of images and passages which suggest that the church is a group of people engaged in a common enterprise, or task.  That enterprise may have different facets: from “fishing” for people (who are to be gathered into God’s family), to healing people, to building an outpost for the “Kingdom of Heaven,” to teaching God’s ways, to helping the poor, to joining in love around a common table – but whatever facet you look at, according to the New Testament, the church is clearly engaged in a task.

The role of leaders within such a church is sometimes described as service to, and nurture of, the other members – usually weak ones such as “widows” – but more often it is portrayed as guiding, or enabling them (tasks such as “exhortation,” or “administration”).

In all this I am certain that the role of Jesus, then Paul, Peter, and the other apostles, was more like that of a “coach” than that of a “chaplain.”
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It’s only a metaphor, but it does hang together...

Try playing with the idea for a minute: a hockey coach must have a good relationship with team members, surely, but having coffee with a player is important only to the degree that this player becomes more effective on the team; a coach must inspire and motivate the players, but time spent in the locker room is only a prelude to the important time: skating, passing, checking, and scoring goals in the unfolding drama of the actual game.

A hockey coach must have a sense of the strategy of the game, and be able to pair up the players so that they can work effectively with one another in order to accomplish that strategy.

And what an awesome responsibility coaches have!  The sports media constantly tell us about this or that coach who is being fired because their team has been losing too many games!  Although the people who count – the players – are responsible for what passes are completed, what shots are deflected, and what goals are scored, somehow their failure to do these things well can be attributed to the person behind the bench.

Which brings me back to the experience of leaving a beloved parish....

What if a coach has been with a team so long, and is such good friends with the players, that everybody can repeat all his sayings by heart?  What if they have heard his instructions to the team so often that the words now (mostly) go “in one ear and out the other”??

It can happen on a hockey team, and it can certainly happen in a parish... “Oh there goes our Rector again, back on his favourite soap box...!”  This phrase – or something like it – can be heard in lots of parishes!

Has it been heard in St.Chad’s?  Of course!  They know it, and I know it.  To the point where I think that neither they nor I can now be as effective as we once were.  I hold certain principles to be very important, but I know that I can’t bring them into play in my parish very well any more; the people who I have been coaching all these years have now developed an “immunity” to those principles, and I have few other things to teach them!

This has nothing to do with whether or not I pastorally love and care for the people – for they know I love them, and they know I would be there for them in times of trouble – it is a case of not being able to get the team excited and alive and playing the game with freshness and vigour!

The grief of departure runs deep

It is summertime in Manitoba, and even the most regular of churchgoers will jump at a chance to relax at the cottage or the beach, so the news that I was leaving took a while to find its way to everyone.

One Sunday, a parishioner who loves her cottage appeared in church.  She sat through the service with her husband, then came up to me afterwards and said “I was at the cottage, and just heard you were leaving.  We had to come in and find out for sure, and you are, aren’t you!

“We’re going to miss you...” She hugged me.  I heard a catch in her voice Her hug was intense, and when she pulled away, her eyes were filled with tears.  Suddenly I felt myself starting to cry, too.

Then I knew how very difficult this is going to be!  Since that day, I have had sudden bursts grief... feeling overwhelmed with both guilt and sorrow for this wrenching cutting off of so many loving ties...

But somewhere else in my heart I know that my primary calling is to be a “coach” not a “chaplain,” and that St.Chad’s now needs to be stretched by new directions, new strategies for getting the job of the Kingdom of Heaven done on earth.
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FOOTNOTE:

*  The Greek word, koinonia, underlying the word “share” in verses 5 and 7, is a classic word for partnership – used to refer to equals; colleagues in a shared enterprise.
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